Anxious GOP establishment wary of extended Bush fight with Rubio

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·Chief National Correspondent
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
image

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush listens as Marco Rubio makes a point during a debate in Boulder, Colo., in October. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP)

DES MOINES, Iowa — As Ted Cruz’s victory party emptied out Monday night, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli raised his voice to be heard above a cover band playing “Brown Eyed Girl” and made the case for why Jeb Bush should not — repeat, not — drop out of the Republican primary.

Cuccinelli, a Cruz supporter, said that Bush should run all the way to the Republican convention in July, arguing that the former Florida governor could emerge as a contender if the convention goes to multiple ballots and delegates are free to choose who they wanted rather than being bound by the popular vote in their states.

“If you think of a divided convention, it is not unreasonable for the Bush people to step back and say, ‘You know, in all of these states, with all these different processes for picking the actual delegates, as a natural course of things, a lot of them are going to be Bush people,” Cuccinelli said.

“The people who rather naturally get elected to those delegate slots are loyalists. They’re not insurgents. And so the Bush people I think are probably hoping that if they end up in a convention they’ve got a natural built-in second ballot bump,” he said. “That’s not unreasonable.”

Actually, it is a total fantasy. Republican insiders and donors are already discussing whether Bush and others who make up the establishment wing of the Republican Party can afford to stay in the race after next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary if they finish well behind Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. That’s far from a certain outcome, of course. But Rubio has the inside track to consolidate the anti-Cruz and anti-Trump Republican voters following his very strong third-place finish in Iowa.

Cuccinelli’s apparent pining for an extended Bush candidacy reveals exactly why Bush is in such a difficult position now.

Donors, operatives and voters who might admire Bush and worry about Rubio’s lack of experience have a bigger concern on their mind: If Bush (or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Ohio Gov. John Kasich) wages an extended battle with Rubio, that creates a huge risk that Cruz or Trump would be the nominee.

If Cruz eliminated or marginalized Trump, or vice versa, while Bush and Rubio were still going after each other, Cruz or Trump could start amassing momentum and delegates in a way that makes them hard to beat.

That’s why Cruz and company dream of an extended Bush run.

Cruz and Trump, who beat Rubio by only a point to come in second in Iowa, want Bush to stay in the race as long as possible so that he will drain support away from Rubio. For Bush to gain traction, he has to take votes away from Rubio and that means he has to attack his former political protégé and fellow Floridian. It would greatly complicate Rubio’s hopes of winning his home state on March 15.

“Ted’s gotta win Texas [on March 1]. Rubio’s gotta win Florida, and he’s gotta do it with Bush in, and Trump and Cruz polling ahead of him,” Cuccinelli said. “Hell, Bush passed him [in the Florida polls].”

Conversely, the longer Cruz and Trump compete for voters who make up the insurgent wing of the Republican Party, the greater an opportunity Rubio has to consolidate his support.

Christie and Kasich are also attacking Rubio this week, but both of them have put most of their eggs in the New Hampshire basket, and if they don’t show well there, they are effectively finished. Bush is different. In theory, at least, he should be able to stay in the Republican primary for a long time yet. He’s got the money. He’s got the résumé.

The problem is that Republicans who love his résumé and his skill set are freaked out by the Trump and Cruz dynamic, and that’s shrinking the timeline.

Bush’s argument against Rubio has so far been a substantive one. “We need a leader that will fix things … someone who has a proven record, who has been tested,” Bush said in the debate here last week. Bush called Rubio and Cruz “back benchers” on Tuesday to drive home the point that they are both first-term senators who have not, like him, run a state government, executive experience that is far closer to the presidency than serving in the Senate.

But many Republicans who might agree with Bush’s substantive case need Bush or his campaign to give them a process argument. They need to be persuaded that the substance question can be addressed and litigated before the public over a series of weeks or months without the process — the accumulation of momentum, delegates and money – handing Cruz or Trump a lead that is difficult to overcome.

“Money flow needs to change sooner to … whomever [wins the establishment lane] enough time to gear up,” said Henry Barbour, the RNC member from Mississippi.

Barbour, who talks to a good number of wealthy donors in the GOP, has been saying for some time now that, after the New Hampshire primary, Republicans who want an establishment candidate like Rubio, Bush, Christie or Kasich need to pick whoever has the best chance and get behind them.

Other experienced Republicans say candidates may have until after the March 1 primary — when 12 states hold primaries or caucuses — to show they could be the nominee.

“I think the candidates can make a plausible case through March 1,” said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican attorney who is one of the most experienced election rules and campaign finance experts from either party.

Ginsberg, who wrote a detailed explanation for Politico of the way the nomination process works, is focused on the delegate battle, which will still have a long way to go on March 1 before any candidate could hope to win the 1,237 delegates to the convention required to win the nomination.

Barbour and those like him, however, are worried about momentum and the narrative that could emerge if the insurgents resolve their civil war and the establishment candidates continue to squabble. And Barbour also is thinking about the time required for a Rubio to take in the money he needs to then build out an organization that can compete in a protracted nomination fight into the spring or early summer with Cruz or Trump.

It’s Republicans like Barbour who need to hear a process argument — from Bush or whoever does not emerge from New Hampshire at the head of the establishment pack — that persuades them to back off from pressuring donors and voters to unite behind a single candidate.

So far there does not appear to be such an argument.

I asked the Bush campaign high command if they are making a process argument to GOP heavyweights to give themselves some breathing room after New Hampshire. Bush spokesman Tim Miller responded by pointing out that the polls show Rubio bunched in with Bush, Cruz, Christie and Kasich around 10 percent. And he discounted the need for a process argument, doubling down on Bush’s qualifications as a two-term governor with a strong conservative record.

“We are picking a president of the United States, not nominating a national committeeman,” Miller said in an email. “Ability to lead is what matters.”

That argument will get harder to make if polling later this week shows Rubio pulling away from the pack. And if Rubio leaves Bush, Christie and Kasich well behind next Tuesday in the primary voting, the Bush campaign will be forced to come up with a stronger argument for why the fight should go on.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting